WASHINGTON (AP) — A light dusting of snow that caused commuter chaos in the nation’s capital served as an ominous prelude to the massive blizzard bearing down on the eastern United States on Thursday.
Less than an inch of snow fell Wednesday night in the District of Columbia, Maryland and northern Virginia, but that was enough for roads to immediately freeze over. Hundreds of accidents left drivers stuck for hours in icy gridlock after efforts to lay salt ahead of the dusting proved ineffective.
“We are very sorry for (our) inadequate response,” District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser said. “We should have been out earlier, with more resources.”
For people already scrambling to prepare for up to 2 feet of heavy wet snow, the trouble caused by a mere dusting provided more reason to worry about what the National Weather Service is calling a “potentially crippling winter storm” expected to hit the Mid-Atlantic region starting Friday afternoon and continuing into Sunday. The icy conditions already caused accidents that killed two drivers in North Carolina and one in Tennessee.
“It’s going to be dangerous out there,” said Tonya Woods, 42, a Metro station manager. She had a much longer-than-usual drive home to suburban Clinton, Maryland, on Wednesday night, and worries that Friday will be much worse. “I say they should shut things down,” she said.
Most major school districts in the region either closed Thursday or opened late. Bowser announced that the district schools would pre-emptively close on Friday, and that city offices would close at noon, hours ahead of the storm. A decision on federal workers was pending Thursday.
States of emergency were declared in Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania, where road crews were out in force Thursday. Blizzard watches were in effect along the storm’s path, from Arkansas through Tennessee and Kentucky to the mid-Atlantic states.
Kentucky’s legislature cancelled its Friday session ahead of an expected 14 inches of snow. The heaviest snowfall, up to 2 feet, was forecast for areas west and southwest of the nation’s capital. Washington itself could see 15 to 20 inches, Philadelphia could get 12 to 18, and New York City and Long Island could see 8 to 10, said meteorologist Patrick Burke.
“In addition to heavy snow, we’ll see really strong winds in the metro area, possibly 40 to 50 mph. That’s going to cause a lot of blowing and drifting snow, and it’s also going to reduce visibility to about zero at times” around Washington and Baltimore, National Weather Service meteorologist Dan Hofmann said.
High winds could make it miserable outdoors even where smaller amounts of snow are expected. Forecasters warned of 30 mph winds in Manhattan on Saturday and coastal flooding in New Jersey.
But Boston, which bore the brunt of massive snowstorms last year, is expected to get just a few inches. If that forecast holds, Mayor Marty Walsh said Thursday that he would lend Bowser two new truck-mounted snow-blowers to help clear the capital’s streets.
The strongest winds and potentially life-threatening blizzard conditions are expected Friday night through Saturday night, making driving very dangerous along the Interstate 95 corridor.
Train service could be disrupted as well, by frozen switches, the loss of third-rail electric power or trees falling on overhead wires. About 1,000 track workers will be deployed to keep New York City’s subway system moving, and 79 trains will have “scraper shoes” to reduce icing on the rails, the Metropolitan Transit Authority said.
All major airlines have issued waivers for travel over the weekend, allowing passengers to rebook onto earlier or later flights to avoid the storms. The airports included vary by airline but include some cities in Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia all the way up the coast to New Hampshire and Massachusetts.
In and around the nation’s capital on Thursday, roads were mostly treated and clear for the morning rush hour, but some elevated roads, ramps and side streets remained icy, forcing drivers to inch along. In Virginia, police responded to 767 crashes over a 24-hour period ending early Thursday, including a trooper hit by a car sliding out-of-control, spokeswoman Corinne Geller said.
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe warned of travel disruptions and power outages and saying people should “take the threat of this storm seriously.” Crews are treating roads ahead of the weekend storm, but Virginia transportation officials urged drivers to stay home in any case.
Some Maryland road crews got stuck in lengthy backups Wednesday night, slowing their progress, state Department of Transportation spokesman Charlie Gischlar said.
Quentin Norman said his commute home from the gas station he manages in Capitol Heights, Maryland, took an hour instead of the usual 15 minutes. Wednesday night’s mess “kind of took us by surprise,” he said. “Everybody was talking about the weekend.”
Chrissy Wiginton, 35, who works as an editor at the Smithsonian, said her walk to work across the National Mall on Thursday morning raised questions about the city and federal governments’ preparations.
“I was really surprised by how bad the sidewalks were,” she said. “It was really icy.”
One major event in Washington was still on: the March for Life, an annual anti-abortion rally that’s usually one of the largest events on the National Mall. It will be held Friday, the anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision.